Metabolism vs Meals

For the last few months Chad and I have had many conversations about his changing diet and the many ways his life and body are changing as a result. [One thing I often notice is that when people talk about their health and nutrition, they get bogged down in details and make things more elaborate and complex then they need to be. (Examples: Raspberry ketones and fruit cleanses, vs eating fruit and vegetables!)] Two topics that we have been discussing lately are metabolism and meals, and how they affect Chad’s success.

A topic that often comes up, not only between Chad and I but with others I talk to, is metabolism, and how it impacts your weight. It is important to note that this is a very complex issue: “metabolism” involves chemical and physical processes the body performs to keep you alive, from digesting food to eliminating drugs and toxins from the body to building muscle and “burning” fat. In everyday conversations, however, people tend to be concerned with the speed of metabolism as it relates to weight. There is very little that is known about why some seem to have a faster metabolism than others, and there are so many factors involved that you can cite very few hard and fast rules about  metabolism. Is Chad changing his metabolism with his weight loss? There are a couple points to be made here:

  • We do know that leaner people have a faster metabolism. Chad has always been strong, but his decreasing percentage of body fat (plus some new muscle he has built with his exercise) will help boost his metabolism. This means he actually requires a bit more energy (calories) with a lean body instead of his former self. (Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?)
  • Also, we don’t know how many calories his leaner body “earns” him, but since he is eating roughly the same amount of calories since the beginning of 40 by 40, it might help explain why he has not had a plateau effect. This gets to the difficulty in talking about boosting your metabolism–we have very few ways to quantify this. Unless we get a workup done to measure our basal metabolic rate which is hardly ever done, we have no way of knowing if we have changed it. But this is the point, who cares? We have not started this project to affect his metabolism, nor have any of my patients ever mentioned this as a goal. If Chad is eating healthier foods, exercising more, and losing weight, (all of which he is,) then the specific rate of his metabolism does not concern me. And while this an interesting topic to discuss for many reasons, it cannot be answered without a prohibitively large about of cost, equipment and expertise.

The second topic is the one that I think is the most important, since we can control it and change it; our meal pattern. Chad’s daily meal pattern was quite horrible; he would have breakfast occasionally, and often it was greasy, fatty or sugary. He would often skip lunch, or eat anywhere between noon or three. In the evening he would overeat and/or choose unhealthy things. This can cause chaos in any body, but since Chad is also trying to keep his diabetes at bay, he should be even more concerned about not skipping meals, and even eat at the same times of the day.  With his new pattern, however, he has been able to resolve these flaws.

  • He eats breakfast…everyday! He eats at close to the same time everyday and has a mix of protein carbs and fat.
  • His lunch, while it does sometimes vary a bit depending on the time and content (especially if lunch is provided at a meeting,) is also light years ahead of what it was. He does eat it everyday, and again, the healthy items he eats now are way above his super-sized fast food lunch wolfed down in the car between meetings.
  • We try to have dinner together, so that pattern hasn’t changed too much, but the portion sizes are watched much more closely than before. Also, since he tracks his day, he knows when he has the freedom to have seconds of something.
  • Snacks. These are critical to his success, in my opinion. There are days he eats 2-3 little, healthy snacks to get him to the next meal. Knowing that he has something on hand that has been OK’d for him to snack on, he has the confidence to snack without making bad choices, and the time between meals is split up so he’s not starving when the next meal rolls around.

When we talk about meals and metabolism, its important to remember our bodies are designed to try and help us get through feasts and famines. Our bodies are quite quick to turn extra calories into fat; they are trying to help us out by planning ahead. (Can you be anthropomorphic about a body? Ironic.) However, in the culture we live in today, we have little to worry about in the famine department, but our bodies cannot change their patterns in a generation or two. Some claim that this starvation effect needs 24 hours to begin, but I tend not to agree, and think even the act of skipping meals can cause this phenomenon to some degree. Note that this is my opinion, from the anecdotal evidence I have seen working with patients with all types of meal patterns and health issues. I speak with patients who are morbidly obese, and some of them report confusion because they may eat less than others they know, but continue to gain weight. Sometimes these people admit to eating all their calories in on meal, or perhaps have one snack. I do acknowledge that some of these people may be editing what they tell me, which is highly possible, but I have seen, and this is backed up by data, that people who eat at least 3 meals a day tend to be a healthier weight than meal skippers. (Obviously, the amount of calories needs to be taken into consideration here.) Is this because the body “thinks” to itself, “Finally, dinner! I haven’t eaten since a half a doughnut 10 hours ago! I’m going to take some extra calories for storage (fat) because who knows when I’ll get fed again?” More research needs to be done to clarify these issues, so as much as it pains a scientist to say, there are many things we just don’t know yet.

So instead of spending time worrying about things that can have only a small affect on our overall health, such as questionable diets and supplements, or worse, giving up and blaming your “slow” metabolism, why not this: If we KNOW we should eat multiple meals per day, and we KNOW what a healthy diet is and we KNOW healthy snacking can help achieve a healthy weight, let’s work on achieving those things we know, so we can see actual improvement in our health.

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